As If By Chance: Part VII

Sketches of Disruptive Continuity in the Age of Print from Johannes Gutenberg to Steve Jobs

Johannes Gutenberg and Steve Jobs

Johannes Gutenberg and Steve Jobs

While reviewing nearly six centuries of print technology—through the lives and inventions of significant industry innovators—it became clear that the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg on the one side, and the breakthrough of desktop publishing by Steve Jobs on the other, are bookends in the age of print. While it has long been acknowledged that the hand-held type mold and printing press are the alpha in the age of manufacturing production of ink-on-paper forms such as books, newspapers, magazines, etc., the view that desktop publishing is the omega of this age is not necessarily widely held. When viewed within the framework of disruptive continuity, it can be shown that the innovations of Gutenberg and Jobs manifest similar attributes in terms of their dramatic departure from previous methods as well as their connection to the multilayered processes of cultural changes in the whole of society in the fifteenth and twentieth centuries.

The advent in 1985 of desktop publishing—a term coined by the founder of Aldus PageMaker, Paul Brainerd—is associated with Steven P. Jobs because he contributed to its conceptualization, he articulated its historical significance, and he was the innovator who made it into a reality. With the support of publishing industry consultant John Seybold, Jobs went on to integrate the technologies and brought together the people that represented the elements of desktop publishing: a personal computer (Apple Macintosh), page layout software (PageMaker), page description language (Adobe PostScript) and a digital laser printing engine (Canon LBP-CX). He demonstrated the integration of these technologies to the world for the first time at the Apple Computer annual stockholders meeting on January 23, 1985, in Cupertino, California, a truly historic moment in the development of graphic communications.

It is a fact that the basic components of desktop publishing had already been developed in the laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) by the late 1970s. However, due to a series of issues related to timing, cost and the corporate culture at Xerox, the remarkable achievements at PARC—which Steve Jobs had seen during a visit to the lab in 1979 and inspired his subsequent development of the Macintosh computer in 1984—never saw the light of day as commercial products. As is often the case in the history of technology, one innovator may be the first to theorize about a breakthrough, or even build a prototype, but never fully develop it, while another innovator creates a practical and functioning product based on a similar concept and it becomes the wave of the future. This was certainly the case with desktop publishing, where many of the elements that Jobs would later integrate at the Cupertino demo in 1985—the graphical user interface (GUI), the laser printer, desktop software integrating graphics and text, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) printing—were functioning in experimental form at PARC at least six years earlier. 

What became known as the desktop publishing revolution was just that. It was a transformative departure from the previous photomechanical stage of printing technology on a par with the separation of Gutenberg’s invention of mechanized metal printing type production from the handwork of scribes. Desktop publishing brought the era of phototypesetting that began in the 1950s to a close. It also eventually displaced the proprietary computerized prepress systems that had emerged and were associated with Scitex in the late 1970s. Furthermore, and just as significant, desktop publishing pushed the assembly of text information and graphic content beyond the limits of ink-on-paper and into the realm of electronic and digital media. Thus, desktop publishing accomplished several things simultaneously: (1) it accelerated the process of producing print media by integrating content creation—including the design of text and graphics into a single electronic document on a personal computer—with press manufacturing processes; (2) it expanded the democratization of print by enabling anyone with a personal computer and laser printer to produce printed material starting with a copy of one; (3) it created the basis for the mass personalization of print media and; (4) it laid the foundation for the expansion of a multiplicity of digital media forms within a decade, including electronic publishing in the form of the Portable Document Format (PDF), e-books, interactive media and, ultimately, contributed the global expansion and domination of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Just as Gutenberg attempted to replicate in mechanized form the handwriting of the scriptoria, the initial transition to digital and electronic media by desktop publishing carried over the various formats of print, i.e., books, magazines, newspaper, journals, etc., into digital files stored on magnetic and optical storage systems such as computer floppy disks, hard drives and compact disks. However, the expansion of electronic media—which was no longer dimensionally restricted by page size or number of pages but limited by data storage capacity and the bandwidth of the processing and display systems—brought the phenomenon of hyperlinks and drove entirely new communications platforms for publishing text, graphics, photographs and audio and video, eventually on mobile wireless devices. Through websites, blogs, streaming content and social media, every individual can record and share their life story, can become a reporter and publisher or participate in, comment on and influence events anywhere in the world.

The groundbreaking significance of desktop publishing, which straddled both the previous printing and the new digital media ages, can be further illustrated by going through the above description by Will Durant of the impact Gutenberg’s invention and substituting the new media for printing and the other contemporary elements of social, intellectual and political life for those the historian identified in the 1950s about the fifteenth century:

To describe all the effects of desktop publishing and electronic media would be to chronicle well more than half the history of the modern mind. … It replaced all informational print by republishing it online as text or in more complex graphical formats like PDF, with methods for managing versions and protecting authenticity so that scholars and researchers in diverse countries may work with one another through video streaming and virtual reality tools, allowing entry of new information and data to be gathered, published and shared in real time as though they were sitting in the same room. … Online electronic media made available to the public all of the world’s manuals and procedural instructions; with the development of international collaborative projects such as Wikipedia, it became the greatest tool for learning that has ever existed, at no charge and available to all. It did not produce Modernism or the information age, but it further paved the way for a new stage of human society that had been promised by the American and French revolutions, based on democracy and where genuine equality exists as a fundamental right for everyone. It made the entire library of literature, music, fine and industrial arts, architecture, theater, athletic competition and cinema instantly available anywhere and at any time in the palm of the hand and prepared the people for an understanding of the role of mythology, mysticism and superstition in history by demonstrating the application of a scientific and materialist outlook in everyday life. It ended the monopoly of news by corporate and state publishers and the control of learning by educational institutions managed by the prevailing ruling classes. It encouraged the streaming of live video by anyone to the entire world’s audience of mobile device owners that could never have been reached through printed media. It facilitated global communication and cooperation of scientists and enabled the launching of the international space station and the sending of multiple probes to the surface of Mars and beyond. It affected the quality and character of all published literature and information by subjecting authors and journalists to the purse and taste of billions of regular working people in both the advanced and lesser developed countries rather than to just the middle and upper classes. And, after speech and print, desktop publishing, online and social media provided a readier instrument for the dissemination of nonsense and disinformation than the world has ever known. 

Up to the present, the new media has not yet displaced print the way print eventually replaced the scribes. It is likely that printing on paper will continue to exist well into the future in a similar manner that the ancient art of pen-and-ink calligraphy has continued to exist alongside of print for centuries long after the last scriptorium was shut down. Meanwhile, electronic media such as e-books have contributed to a resurgence of printed books and, after the initial fascination with the electronic devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, the popularity and thirst of the public for books has increased, particularly following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. While the forced separation of people from each other has driven up the use of digital tools such as online video meetings, events and gatherings, the self-isolation of reading a printed book has suddenly peaked again. 

Considerable effort has been made to replicate the experience of reading print media in electronic form. The advent of e-paper—the simulation of the look and feel of ink-on-paper which was pioneered at Xerox PARC in the 1970s (Nick Sheridan, Gyricon)—is an attempt to adapt two-dimensional digital display technologies to mimic the reading experience of the printed page. Since then, studies have shown that paper-based books yield superior reading retention to that of e-books. This is not so much because of the appearance of the printed page and its impact on visual perception as it is the tactile experience and spatial awareness connected with turning physical pages and navigating through a volume that contains a table of contents and an index.

In 2012, during a presentation at the DRUPA International Printing and Paper Expo in Düsseldorf, Germany, Benny Landa, the pioneer of digital printing who developed the Indigo Press in 1993, said the following:

I bet there is not one person in this hall that believes that two hundred years from now man will communicate by smearing pigment onto crushed trees. The question on everyone’s mind is when will printed media be replaced by digital media. … It will take many decades before printed media is replaced by whatever it will be … many decades is way over the horizon for us and our children.

Since Landa’s talk at DRUPA was part of the introduction of a new press with a digital printing method called he called nanography, he was emphasizing that we need to live and work in the here and now and not get too far ahead of ourselves. Landa’s nanographic press is based on advanced imaging technology that transfers a film of ink pigment to almost any printing surface which is multiple magnitudes thinner than either offset or other digital presses. By removing the water in the inkjet process, the fusing of toner to paper in the xerography and the petroleum-based vehicles that carry pigment in traditional offset presses, nanography dramatically reduces the cost of reproduction by focusing on the transfer ultra-fine droplets of pure pigment (nanoink) first to a blanket and then to the substrate. The aim of nanography is to keep paper-based media economically viable by providing a variable imaging digital press that can compete with the costs of offset lithography and accommodate the needs of the hybrid digital and analog commercial printing marketplace.

While print volumes are in decline, society is not yet ready to make a full transition to electronic media and move entirely away from paper communications. This is a serious dilemma facing those working in the printing industry who are trying to navigate the difficulties of maintaining a viable business in an environment where print remains in demand—in some segments it is growing—but overall, it is a shrinking percentage of economic activity. With greater numbers of people and resources being redirected to communications and marketing products in the more promising and profitable big tech and social media sectors, the printing industry is being starved of talent and economic resources.

Rather than trying to put a date on the moment of transition to a post-printing and fully-digital age of communications, the more relevant question is how it will be accomplished. Landa had it right when he said that today most people believe that two hundred years from now, man will no longer communicate by “smearing pigment onto crushed trees.” When the character of print media is put in these terms, the historical distance of this analog form of communications from the long-term potential of the present digital age becomes clearer. Still, no clear vision or roadmap has yet been articulated for what is required for civilization to elevate itself beyond the age of print.

It is difficult to discuss the moment of a complete progression of human communication methods from Gutenberg to Jobs without reference to the work of the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Although McLuhan’s presentation lacked a coherent perspective and tended to drift about in what he called the “mosaic approach,” he made numerous prescient observations about the forms of media and the evolution of communications technology. Sharing elements of the theory of disruptive continuity, McLuhan focused in on the reciprocal interaction of the modes of communication—spoken, printed and electronic—with the broader societal economic, cultural and ideological transformations in world history. He emphasized the way these transitions each fundamentally altered man’s consciousness and self-image. He also recognized that there was presently a “clash” between what he called the culture of the “electric age” with that of the age of print. During an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1965, McLuhan explained how he saw technology as an extension of man’s natural capabilities:

If the wheel is an extension of feet, and tools of hands and arms, then electromagnetism seems to be in its technological manifestations an extension of our nerves and becomes mainly an information system. It is above all a feedback or looped system. But the peculiarity, you see, after the age of the wheel, you suddenly encounter the age of the circuit. The wheel pushed to an extreme suddenly acquires opposite characteristics. This seems to happen with a good many technologies— that if they get pushed to a very distant point, they reverse their characteristics.

Among McLuhan’s most significant contributions are found in his 1962 work, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man. He discusses the reliance of primitive oral culture upon auditory perception and the elevation of vision above hearing in the culture of print. He wrote his study, “is intended to trace the ways in which the forms of experience and of mental outlook and expression have been modified, first by the phonetic alphabet and then by printing.” For McLuhan, the transformations from spoken word culture to typography and from typography to the electronic age extended beyond the mental organization of experience. In the Preface to The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan summarized how he saw the interactive relationship of media forms with the whole social environment:

Any technology tends to create a new human environment. Script and papyrus created the social environment we think of in connection with the empires if the ancient world. … Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike. In our time the sudden shift from the mechanical technology of the wheel to the technology of electric circuitry represents one of the major shifts of all historical time. Printing from movable types created a quite unexpected new environment—it created the public. Manuscript technology did not have the intensity or power of extension necessary to create publics on a national scale. What we have called “nations” in recent centuries did not, and could not, precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in all other people.

As early as 1962—seven years before the creation of the Internet and nearly three decades before the birth of the World Wide Web—McLuhan anticipated the historical, far-reaching and revolutionary implications of the information and electronic age on the global organization of society. Although he eschewed determinism in any form, McLuhan pointed to the potential for electronic media to drive mankind beyond the national particularism which is rooted in the technical, socio-historical and scientific eras connected with the age of print. McLuhan later used the phrase “global village” to describe his vision of a higher form of non-national organization driven by the methods of human interaction that were brought on by “the advent of electric circuitry” and “totally involve all people in all other people.” For McLuhan, the transformation from the typographic and mechanical age to the electric age began with the telegraph in the 1830s. The new media created by the properties of electricity were expanded considerably with telephone, radio, television and the computer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. McLuhan also wrote that the electronic media transformation revived oral culture and displaced the individualism and fragmentation of print culture with a “collective identity.”

McLuhan’s examination of the historical clash of the electronic media with the social environment of print culture and his prediction that a new collective human identity will be established from the transition to a global structure beyond the present fragmented national identities is highly significant. It points to the coming of the societal transformations that will be required for electronic media to thoroughly overcome print media as a completed historical process. In a similar way that Gutenberg’s invention spread across Europe and the world and planted the seeds of foundational transformation—in technology, politics and science—that developed over the next three and a half centuries, we are today likewise in the incubator of the new global transformation of electronic media. With this historically dynamic way of understanding the present, the worldwide spread of smartphones and social media to billions of people, despite national barriers placed upon the exchange of information as well as other differences such as language and ethnicity, humanity is being transformed with the emergence of a new homogeneous global culture. For this development to achieve its full potential, the social organization of man must be brought into alignment and there is no reason to believe that this adjustment from nations to a higher form of organization will take place with any less discontinuity than that of the period of world history that began with the rapid development of printing technology, the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions.

There are scientists and futurists who either proselytize or warn about the coming of the technological singularity, i.e., the moment in history when electronic media convergence and artificial intelligence will completely overtake the native capacities of humanity. The argument goes that these extensions of man will become irreversible, and civilization will be transformed in unanticipated ways either toward a utopian or dystopian future, depending on whether one supports or opposes the promises of the singularity. The twentieth century philosophical and intellectual movement known as transhumanism promotes the idea that the human condition will be dramatically improved through advanced technologies and cognitive enhancements. The dystopian opponents of transhumanist utopianism argue that technological advancements such as artificial intelligence should not be permitted to supplant the natural powers of the human mind on the grounds that they are morally compromising, and such a development poses an existential threat to society. Among these competing views, however, is the shared notion that the coming transformation of mankind will take place without a fundamental change in the social environment. Both the supporters and opponents of transhumanism envision that the extensions of man will evolve independently of any realignment of the economic or cultural foundations of society.

However, it is not possible to prognosticate about the future of communications technology outside of an understanding that the tendencies present in embryonic form nearly six centuries ago—particularly the democratization of information and knowledge that been vastly expanded in our time—bring with them powerful impulses for broad and fundamental societal change. In a world where every individual has the potential to communicate as both publisher and consumer of information with everyone else on the planet—regardless of geographic location, ethnicity, language or national origin—it appears entirely possible and necessary that new and higher forms of social organization must be achieved before this new media can carve a path to a truly post-printing age of mankind. While the existential threats are real, they do not come from the technology itself. The danger arises from the clash of the existing social structures against the expanding global integration of humanity. We have every reason to be optimistic about taking this next giant step into the future.

Concluded

Robert Howard (1923–2014): Dot matrix printer & direct imaging press

Robert Howard: May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014
Robert Howard:
May 19, 1923–December 19, 2014

Apple recently removed the headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Owners of the new model are required to use wireless Bluetooth audio or the Lightning port—the only connector on the phone that also charges the battery—for wired headphones. If the headphone jack is a must, owners can purchase the Lighting-to-3.5mm audio adapter separately for $9.

The missing headphone jack has upset some Apple customers. At the iPhone 7 launch, marketing chief Phil Schiller drove home the company’s reasoning, “Maintaining an ancient, single-purpose, analog, big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.” As some tech journalists have pointed out, Apple’s decision comes down to one word: progress.

Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors
Analog 3.5mm and ¼” audio connectors

Actually, the 3.5mm headphone jack is based on technology that is more than one hundred twenty-five years old. It is a miniaturized version of the phone connector originally developed in the late 1870s for operators to manually connect telephone calls by plugging cords into a switchboard.

The 3.5mm format was created in the 1950s for the transistor radio earpiece and was modified in the 1960s for the Sony portable FM radio and again in 1979 for the Sony Walkman. The fact is that the analog headphone jack has been an anachronism since compact disks and other digital technologies like optical audio became available more than thirty years ago.

As with many earlier decisions by Apple—like eliminating floppy disk and CD-DVD drives, replacing parallel ports with USB ports and adopting Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless—the abandonment of the headphone jack, although disruptive, will allow the next generation of technology to develop and flourish.

Centronics interface

The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970
The Centronics connectors (25-pin and 36-pin) were dominant in computer peripheral technology for nearly thirty years beginning in 1970

Interfaces and standards for connecting things together is an important part of electronics and computer history. The adoption of a new format, design or methodology over earlier ones—like USB for SCSI or Thunderbolt for FireWire—is complex and involves a mix of science, engineering, economics and a bit of good luck. In some cases, innovation can fill a void and be embraced rapidly if the cost of adoption is affordable. In other instances, persistent obsolescence can override innovation due to design weaknesses or ease-of-use considerations.

dr-an-wang
Dr. An Wang of Wang Laboratories

Robert Howard—a prolific inventor for seven decades beginning in the 1940s—was among the first engineers to understand that open technology standards were needed to connect computer equipment together. In the late 1960s, along with Dr. An Wang and Prentice Robinson at Wang Laboratories, Howard developed the 36-pin Centronics parallel interface to connect the Centronics Model 101 dot matrix printer to computers.

Although the Wang Labs team could not have predicted it, the Centronics connector took off and became one of the most successful computer connection technologies ever made. One reason for its success was the performance advantages over previous serial interfaces: parallel could carry multiple data streams between devices and could also simultaneously transmit status information.

More fundamentally, however, was the fact that the computer industry in the 1960s was going through a transition. Prior to the Centronics interface, each computer manufacturer used proprietary solutions designed to block customers from buying equipment from competitors. As the computer peripheral business expanded rapidly, however, the lack of standardized connection methods had become a barrier to progress.

As described by Robert Howard in his autobiography Connecting the Dots, the Centronics parallel port was the beginning of a shift in business philosophy among computer companies: “We came to the conclusion that if we developed a very easy, simple interface and gave it free to the world, it might be accepted and used by everyone. Apparently, the practice of creating unique interfaces was so resented by everyone in the computer industry that once IBM accepted our interface, seven other major companies immediately followed suit.” This was not the first or last major technical accomplishment associated with Robert Howard.

Robert Howard’s youth

robert-with-his-father-samuel-horowitz-howard-in-1931
Young Robert with his father Samuel Horowitz (Howard) in 1931

Robert Howard was born Robert Emanuel Horowitz in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York to Samuel and Gertrude (Greenspoon) Horowitz on May 19, 1923. Robert’s father worked the midnight shift at the Main US Post Office in New York City. Although he was born three months premature and was afflicted with dyslexia, Robert grew into a very likeable and stout youngster with athletic talent in several sports.

After the family moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, Robert spent much of his spare time at the Brooklyn Ice Palace where he learned to skate. He played youth hockey and his skills on the ice were noticed by the hockey coach at Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite all-boys public school. Despite his marginal grades, Robert was recruited to attend Brooklyn Tech as along as that he promised to improve his studies.

While at Brooklyn Tech, Robert excelled at machine shop and woodworking. He built a model airplane out of balsa wood and tissue paper and a refurbished gas engine as a school project. His 1937 delta-wing design was ahead of its time and he received an award for it.

Robert was very close to his maternal grandfather, Isaac Greenspoon, who immigrated to the US from Odessa, Russia in 1910. Isaac started a window-shade business on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that became very successful. Robert worked at his grandfather’s company as a teenager and acquired business skills and decision making that would later prove to be a critical part of his own success.

Although no one, including family members, expected Robert to graduate, he not only received his high school diploma but was awarded an athletic scholarship to attend the college of engineering at Columbia University. By the time of his graduation from Brooklyn Tech, World War II was well underway and the Horowitz’s changed their name to “Howard” to avoid the anti-Semitism that was on the rise during that period.

Before attending Columbia, Robert took a summer job working the night shift for the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Brooklyn. He was hired to operate the milling and cutting machines used to produce parts for US military searchlights. He kept the job when college classes started so he could cover his living expenses.

In a stroke of good fortune, Robert was hired as an engineer for a new vacuum tube project at Sperry. Although he was still a student and did not have an engineering degree, the new position required the machine-shop skills that he did have. Robert switched to night school and threw himself into the vacuum tube development program. This was his first experience with electronics and, like so many other innovators of his generation, the field soon became a focus of his work and he stick with it until the end of his career.

Howard’s early inventions

Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959
Robert Howard’s sons Larry and Richard with a Howard Television set in 1959

After a brief stint in the army, Robert was hired as an engineer at Sylvania Electric Company in Queens, New York. Starting at the age of twenty, he became involved in a seemingly endless series of projects in a wide variety of pursuits that would establish him as a pioneer of post-war electronics innovation. His accomplishments would include the founding of at least twenty-four different companies and the development of dozens of state-of-the-art inventions.

Robert Howard’s inventions are so numerous and varied that it is only possible to review a few of them here:

  • 1947: Rectangular TV tube
    All early television sets had round picture tubes. This meant that the rectangular broadcast image was either clipped the top and bottom or was reduced in size to fit in the 7, 10, 11 or 14-inch standard diameters of the first TV tubes. While working for Sylvania, Robert Howard proposed a rectangular tube design and convinced the company to manufacture one hundred of these 16-inch television CRTs.
  • 1950: Cable television
    After founding Howard Television, Inc. to build and sell his own design for black and white TVs, Robert secured a contract to create the first cable TV system that was designed as part of the newly constructed Windsor Park apartment complex in the Bayside section of Queens, New York. Later known as the master antenna television system (MATS), the project connected 18 buildings with a total 320 apartments via coaxial cable to a single television antenna with a signal booster and splitter that enhanced the reception for seven TV channels from the New York area.
  • 1961: Improvements in vinyl record production
    Right around the time that the recording industry was transitioning from 78s to LPs, Robert was collaborating with a company that made the machines that pressed vinyl records. He helped to improve the quality of the mass-produced records by introducing zinc plates into the process. He also invented a pressurized steam-based system for controlling the temperature of the molten vinyl as it was extruded into the record press. Known as the “The Boomer,” Robert Howard’s invention significantly increased the volume of phonograph record production while maintaining the highest stereo quality.
  • 1968: Casino computer system
    As a division of Wang Laboratories, Robert Howard founded Centronics to build the first computerized system to prevent skimming at casino gaming tables. Robert’s system tracked the relationship between the amount of cash coming in versus the value of chips going out. The computerized register centrally tracked the amount of each transaction, each table number and each dealer at any time during the day.

Contributions to printing

Robert Howard’s work with the casino industry led to plans for a printing device that could produce multiple hard copy records of gaming transactions. The available technologies of that time were either too expensive and large or too small and slow for this purpose. Working with Dr. Wang at Centronics on a new computer printing device, Robert’s curiosity and sense of entrepreneurship put him on a path toward innovations that helped bring the printing industry into the digital age.

Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer
Model 101 Centronics Dot Matrix Printer

  • 1970: Dot matrix printer
    Electronic impact printers with ink-soaked cloth ribbons like typewriters had been developed by IBM in the 1950s for printing from mainframe computers. These machines used a chain with a complete set of characters passing horizontally across the paper at high speed. As the paper moved vertically line-by-line, type hammers struck from behind and drove the accordion folded, tractor-fed paper against the ribbon and type characters on the chain. The IBM line printers had the speed that Robert needed but they cost about $25,000 and were the size of a large piece of office furniture.

    While at Wang Labs, Robert developed a self-contained impact print-head could be made to produce type characters on paper from a matrix of one hundred dots. His invention used wires or “pins” that could print up to 185 characters per second and hit the ribbon and paper hard enough to print all four copies of a multi-part form. The core technology of his invention was an electromagnetic switch that could make each pin strike the printing surface one thousand times per second, more than enough to satisfy the performance required for the gaming reports, and at a cost that was affordable.

    Following the formation of an independent partnership with the Japan-based Brother Industries, Robert Howard’s dot matrix technology was deployed in the Model 101 Centronics printer. Although there were competing dot matrix devices on the market, Centronics became the most successful mass production printer of the early computer industry. By the mid-1970s, sales grew exponentially and reached tens of thousands of units internationally. It was the popularity of the printer that made the above-mentioned Centronics interface into an industry standard for connecting peripherals to computers that lasted for decades until it was replaced by the Universal Serial Bus (USB) in the 1990s.

  • 1991: Direct imaging press

    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology
    Prototype of the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press that was designed with integrated Presstek direct imaging technology

    Robert Howard made what is certainly his most enduring contribution to the printing industry toward the end of his career. In 1986, he founded Presstek to develop the first ever direct imaging offset printing technology. As he explained in his autobiography, “The problem at that time was that offset color was a slow, costly process. It took at least ten days to two weeks of what was called ‘prepress’ preparation before a color print job could even be put on a printing press, and because of this expense, it was both impractical and costly to print less than 10,000 copies of anything. I wanted to apply our knowledge of computers and imaging to the color printing business.”

    Robert’s breakthrough concept was to image the printing plates on the press itself and eliminate the darkrooms, film and chemistry associated with prepress processes. By 1991, a Presstek laser imaging system was added to a Heidelberg offset printing press and sold as the Heidelberg GTO DI (for direct imaging). At the center of the Presstek system was a set of four-color thermal laser heads that imaged plates on press. Aside from the novelty of the on-press plate imaging, the Presstek technology was waterless and was easily retrofitted onto the existing Heidelberg GTO design because it took the place of the unneeded dampening system.

    Beginning in 1993, Presstek and Heidelberg developed the Quickmaster DI press, a printing system that was designed from scratch with the on-press laser imaging technology. Launched at DRUPA in 1995, the Quickmaster DI became one of the most popular Heidelberg offset presses ever with 5,000 machines sold within the decade. The press included design innovations that made it easier to operate than previous offset systems. With this innovation, Robert Howard invented a technology that was both disruptive to the prepress industry and also enabled former prepress companies to enter the short-run color printing market.

Robert Howard died on December 19, 2014 at the age of 91. Although he is not a well-known figure in the history of printing—perhaps because of the variety of businesses and disciplines where he left his mark—Robert made critical contributions to the industry, especially in the final decades of the twentieth century. His exceptional talents as an engineer and entrepreneur were essential to the transition of offset printing from an exclusively analog process to one that uses a host of integrated digital technologies.

NAPL report: What is happening to the printing industry?

State of the IndustryLast September, NAPL (National Association for Printing Leadership) published a valuable eleventh edition of a report called “State of the Industry.” The report provides a multi-faceted and insightful look into the condition of the printing industry—the changes, challenges and opportunities faced by printing firms today—based upon a survey of executives and owners from more than 300 companies.

The report is the work of Andrew Paparozzi, NAPL Chief Economist, and Joseph Vincenzino, NAPL Senior Economist. The NAPL economists overlay the survey results upon other general information to develop a depth of understanding about the dynamic forces impacting the industry. A copy of the report is available for NAPL members at no charge and non-members can purchase it on the NAPL web site for $149.95. http://members.napl.org/store_product.asp?prodid=369

A central theme of the survey results and analysis—both quantitative and qualitative—is that print is undergoing a transformation of historic magnitude. The difficulties created by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that caused business volumes to fall dramatically—and they still remain today some 21% below pre-recession highs—are but one side of the problems created by rapidly evolving print markets.

The report begins with the following: “Business remains a tough grind, with little opportunity for organic growth.” This means that firms competing for “new” business are struggling over a traditional print market pie that is getting smaller; and yet market redistribution is also underway because of the second side of the changing business climate: the fundamental adjustments brought on by digital communications technologies and methods.

As Paparozzi and Vincenzino explain in the Executive Summary, “Getting and staying on the right side of market redistribution is the most significant challenge for everyone in our industry. Market redistribution is structural, not just cyclical. So much of what’s happening in our industry is the result of digitization, the Internet, and profound change in how people communicate, not GDP. Consequently, we have fewer printers but more competition—we’re in a constant battle for market share.”

The NAPL analysis is more than a review and commentary on the condition of the industry (Chapters: “Where We Are” and “Where We Are Headed”); the report also contains an assessment of those firms that are doing well in the current environment. It brings together generalizations (Chapters: “What We Have to Do” and “We May Need to Look Elsewhere”) about the correct way to approach the printing business today (Chapters: “Leaders: A Diverse Group” and “Ideas for Action”). At the same time, the report cautions against any kind of formulaic or “cookie-cutter” solution for every company or situation.

As the Executive Summary concludes: “It isn’t enough to know what’s happening and what’s ahead. We have to act on what we know—a game plan for action—taking steps to make the upheaval redefining our industry an opportunity rather than a threat. This report provides several ‘ideas for action’ to do just that.” These actions are summarized as “Hear the voice of our clients more clearly; execute more efficiently and successfully; communicate company direction to employees more effectively; and cultivate new skills across our organization.”

Macro trends

One interesting point that is made deals with the contraction of the industry. It is well know that the number of printing establishments has been declining for the last two decades; since 1992 there were 16,000 fewer companies in the industry (41,012 down to 25,242) by 2012. However, as the report analyses, not only are companies dying off, but there are also new firms being born each year.

Printing Company Births and Deaths

What kind of companies are these businesses? NAPL answers thus: “These companies are coming in with a clean slate—i.e. without legacy equipment, work habits and mindsets that limit flexibility or the troublesome issue of long-term, loyal employees whose skills don’t match the direction in which the company is embarking. Rather they are hiring the skills they at the start, creating a workforce with talents more relevant to our new industry. That they tend to be smaller companies shouldn’t create a false sense of security: Smaller companies grow—and the good ones grow rapidly.”

Another important point the report makes about the overall situation is that a boost in overall economic activity as reflected in GDP is not going to produce a “recovery” in printing. In any event, the very modest economic growth remains lackluster because of “headwinds” such as government cutbacks and the implications of the Affordable Care Act.

NAPL predicts that US printing industry sales will rise .5%-1.5% in 2013 and as much as 1.0%-3.0% in 2014 following an increase of .6% in 2012. While these figures are very modest, the report shows that these results are not projected to be even across all regions of the country. While some regions, such as South Central, have experienced double-digit growth since 2007, others like the Southeast and North Central have seen an overall decline of -.5%.

Print business priorities

The NAPL survey results reveal what company owners and executives consider the most important areas of focus and how they approach them. The following are the business topics and the top responses to the survey:

  • Hearing the Voice of the Customer
    Meeting more frequently on an owner-to-owner/executive-to-executive basis (64%)
  • Client Education
    We offer client education programs and materials (56.4%)
  • Employee Communications
    One-on-one or small group meetings (77%)
  • Execution issues
    Poor follow through. Start off well, but lose focus (39.8%)
  • Strategic Shifts
    We will no longer carry unproductive employees (48.3%)
  • Critical Skills
    Sales (71.3%)
  • What We’d Most Like to Upgrade
    Web-to-print, web storefront, ecommerce (51%)

Sales Industry Leaders

One of the striking results of the survey is that there is an expanding divergence between industry leaders and the rest of the industry. This comes out most obviously on the sales front. It is clear from the foregoing data that understanding customer needs, business development and sales are a top priorities for printing company owners and executives.

In an environment of intense competition, differentiation is key to winning and retaining clients. In order to survive and grow, those companies that have been most successful have absorbed the meaning of the fundamental changes taking place and are offering a complex array of products and services beyond ink on paper. As summed up in the comment of one survey participant, “Successful printers recognize they are part of the communications industry, not the printing industry.”

Where does offset lithography fit?

An important aspect of the NAPL report deals with the state of traditional offset printing. In fact, the report contains a page following the executive summary called, “What About Lithography?” which makes some highly valuable comments about the relationship between the old and the new of the industry.

Offset lithography is still the single biggest source of revenue in the printing industry. At between $40 and $45 billion, this market breaks down as follows:

  • Advertising print: $10.2 billion
  • Magazine/periodical print: $4.9 billion
  • Catalog/directory print: $3.2 billion
  • Miscellaneous other print: $20 billion

Printing Company Revenue Sources

Eighty-eight percent of NAPL survey respondents reported that they get one quarter of their revenue from offset lithography and 70% report that it accounts for at least half. Printing companies cannot afford to “walk away” from this dominant yet traditional source of revenue. “Put simply, once we won by being the best lithographer. Now we win by being the best at putting lithography and every other service that we offer—it’s print-and, not print-or—to work for our clients.” This is a very good summary of where we are as an industry: one foot in the old and one foot in the new era of communications.